Taking new tacks

19.12.2016
Technology can solve problems we still do not know we have, believes Alexandra Bech Gjørv, head of Norway’s Sintef research foundation. But that depends on daring to think bigger and to look further ahead.

| Astri Sivertsen and Thor Nielsen (photos)

 

Alexandra Bech Gjørv, head of Norway’s Sintef research foundation.

Alexandra Bech Gjørv,
head of Norway’s Sintef research foundation.

 

 

"Restructuring has so far concentrated on similar companies merging to achieve economies of scale. What’s happening now is that dissimilar enterprises are joining forces."

 

 

Gjørv occupies an unpretentious corner office just outside the centre of Trondheim, Norway’s long-standing centre for technical education.

Her room lies no more than a good stone’s throw from the corner flag at the Lerkendal stadium – the home ground for Rosenborg, the most successful Norwegian football team.

Unlike many top executives, however, Gjørv does not toss soccer metaphors around when explaining what her job involves and what management means. She prefers nautical images.

She calls her navy-blue costume her “sailor suit”, and describes management in terms of tacking – not sticking pins in her subordinates, but advancing against a contrary wind towards distant goals by constantly changing course.

Another characteristic which distinguishes Gjørv from the bulk of Norwegian business leaders is her education. Rather than the ubiquitous economists – and occasional engineer – she is a lawyer.

“Most people with a law degree don’t head technological companies,” she admits. “But I’m a socially aware person who’s devoted her whole life to questions related to managing natural resources and the interaction between technology and organisation. So I feel I’ve worked on many on the issues we deal with here.”

The Foundation for Industrial and Technical Research, to give Sintef its original full name, was established in 1950 by the Norwegian Institute of Technology (NTH).

Corresponding to a European technical university, the latter was then Norway’s only institution entitled to award engineering MScs.

It is now the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and still cooperates closely with the research institute, an independent foundation with some 2 000 employees.

Gjørv held management jobs in Norsk Hydro and Statoil for 17 years, and has more than two decades of boardroom experience from companies involved with energy, technology and the media.

She was a partner in the Hjort law firm and chief executive for wind power specialist Sarepta Energi when the Sintef job came up just over a year ago.

Perhaps her best-known role was as chair of the commission of inquiry into the terrorist attack on the government quarter in Oslo and Utøya island north of the capital on 22 July 2011.

The report this body produced ranks as possibly the most widely read official document in Norwegian history, and was praised for its clear conclusions and unambiguous recommendations.

Many of the commission’s criticisms were directed at the inability of public agencies charged with security and emergency preparedness to do their job properly.

“Both the head of the commission’s secretariat [Bjørn Otto Sverdrup] and I came from the oil and gas industry, where I feel people are under a fairly strong obligation to do what they’ve said they will,” Gjørv observes.

She admits that a government ministry has far more complex goals than an oil company, and needs to deliver across a far wider range of parameters.

So the management job in a public agency is undoubtedly more complicated. Nevertheless, she feels that leadership expertise acquired in the petroleum industry has a transfer value.

Since her commission assignment, Gjørv has been asked to give talks in the health sector and has been much in demand for teaching purposes in the Oslo school system.

Schools must naturally prepare against such threats as gun use. But they also wanted to learn more about how to handle the biggest risk – the many pupils who drop out.

So she has given head teachers and leadership teams, on request, an introduction to understanding risk and drilled them in how to take counteraction.

“I feel that was an excellent follow-up to the commission’s work, and a very interesting and rewarding assignment I hadn’t expected at all when we submitted our report,” she says.

 

Interaction

A large part of Gjørv’s job at Sintef involves getting industry and the public sector to interact. She is an eager proponent of multidisciplinary approaches to solving major social problems.

One example is the expertise built up by the petroleum sector through the development of various methods for draining oil and gas reservoirs.

Sintef, in collaboration with other Norwegian research institutes, is now using simulator modelling and ultrasonic technology from the oil industry to replicate blood flow.

The aim is to make operations on heart valves much safer. Gjørv notes that 15 per cent of all such interventions need to be repeated.

“That obviously involves great suffering for the patient and a heavy cost for society,” she says. “We think a more industrial approach to planning operations can yield a dramatic improvement.”

In her view, it is unfortunate that few of the funds devoted to health research in Norway are offered by competitive tendering – which would allow multidisciplinary ideas to prevail.

Almost all the money is allocated by the health authorities to their own clinical researchers, but Gjørv wants to see more multidisciplinary parameters for health research and innovation.

 

Shifts

Addressing the ONS oil show in Stavanger this August, the Sintef head called attention to the technological shifts which will change all sectors of society – including the petroleum industry.

Nanotechnology, microsensors able to be placed anywhere, big data, three-dimensional printing, automation and robotisation will collectively drive the adoption of new business models.

“Restructuring has so far concentrated on similar companies merging to achieve economies of scale,” Gjørv observes. “What’s happening now is that dissimilar enterprises are joining forces.”

She points to the collaboration deal on seabed technology between oil company Det Norske and suppliers Aker Solutions and Subsea 7.

The value chain in a number of sectors has been turned upside down by digitalisation. Work flows and divisions of labour between various players have changed, and business models are increasingly about delivering a service rather than a product.

Gjørv envisages recent developments in the hotel and transport sectors, with such companies as Airbnb and Uber, being transferred to the oil industry.

This is likely to mean that suppliers acquire a bigger role in producing NCS fields, while the oil companies concentrate on finding and owning resources.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen, of course,” she admits. “But these are trends which I feel are in the process of crystallising out.”

She thinks that interest in technology is much greater than it was even 10 years ago, but does not attribute this to the recent focus on cost cuts.

Instead, this trend reflects such aspects as the spread of smartphones and the changes this has led to. When daily life alters, people naturally think the same will happen at work.

 

Technology transfer. Scientists are using simulator models from the oil industry to make heart operations safer.

Technology transfer.
Scientists are using simulator models from the oil industry to make heart operations safer.

 

More from less

Another trend which, in Gjørv’s view, applies very much to the oil industry is the emphasis on getting more out of the resources at a lower price than today.

“Without big new investment, we’ve got to tie small oil finds back to existing infrastructure,” she says. “And we must seek to eliminate cost elements which weren’t seen as important before.”

She highlights the need to utilise big data, which in her definition involves marrying historical and real-time information with a decision support system.

In her view, the oil industry is not a leader here. She points to the use being made of more accurate measurement, simulations, historical knowledge and data series in the electricity sector.

That allows the players to get more out of their existing infrastructure, which means in turn that they do not have to invest in expensive new transformers, for example.

The process industry provides another example, with Hydro starting to use long-term forecasts of external temperatures in managing electrolytic furnaces at its aluminium plants.

“Saving a milliwatt here and another there adds up to hundreds of millions of kroner over time,” Gjørv says. “Energy efficiency at the micro level means a great deal in large systems.”

In her view, the oil sector has the advantage of being a fully instrumented industry. It has data from all the wells drilled and every Xmas tree subsea or topside.

Going back to historical information, analysing it and seeking patterns for predicting possible events in order to avoid production shutdowns is an example of utilising big data.

“This means you have the capacity not only to store but also to analyse and process huge quantities of information,” she notes. “You can then solve problems you didn’t know you had.”

A third field where new research could have major consequences is molecular and nano-level technology, which could lay the basis for new production methods.

One approach being envisaged, for example, involves adding nanoparticles to fluids being injected into a reservoir to improve recovery.

A lot of energy currently goes on pumping water into formations to maintain pressure as the oil flows out, which is one reason why carbon emissions from the NCS are rising.

“In a more climate-conscious society, where reducing national emissions is important, I‘d devote substantial resources to devising a more chemical-based approach to drainage,” says Gjørv.

She believes that a better understanding of the properties of oil, rooted in detailed chemical analyses, could be part of the solution to the problem.

Should this approach succeed, energy consumption could be reduced – cutting both production costs and carbon emissions.

 

Part of the solution? The carbon laboratory in Trondheim became operational in 2010, and has since been expanded several times

Part of the solution?
The carbon laboratory in Trondheim became operational in 2010, and has since been expanded several times

 

Capture

Sintef is making a big commitment to research on carbon capture, transport and storage, and a treatment plant was completed at Tiller in Trondheim during 2010.

This facility has since been expanded with a number of test laboratories. And the foundation made its biggest ever investment with a new NOK 170 million electricity lab in 2015.

Norway needs new jobs, Gjørv emphasises – not only to replace those lost in the oil industry, but also to offset big workplace changes stemming from digitalisation and robotisation.

“We particularly want to develop new technology companies,” she says. “So it’s a pity that Norway has such a thin capital management environment in this field.”

Sintef has seed capital funds which have helped to establish a number of innovative companies, and is the first institution in Norway to receive grants from the European Investment Fund (EIF).

But most start-ups end in foreign hands – including two of the companies which originated in Sintef’s work with oil and gas technology.

These are Resman, which has developed new methods for monitoring oil reservoirs, and GasSecure’s wireless detectors for monitoring and notifying gas leaks on offshore installations.

Gjørv regrets that property is more popular today than jobs with investors, and maintains that the authorities should play a bigger role in creating viable high-tech companies.

“Since the government has reaped so much capital from the oil sector, it should also sow more,” she argues – preferably in the form of co-investment projects with private players.

“I’d like to see Norway getting not only cool start-ups, but also cool large-scale enterprises with their head offices in this country.”

 

"Since the government has reaped so much capital from the oil sector, it should also sow more."

 

Ocean space

Norway’s sea areas are six times larger than its land mass, and a number of Sintef teams are currently working with the ocean space – marine technology, oil and gas, fishing, aquaculture and such environmental technologies as oil spill response.

After almost a year at the helm, skipper Gjørv is ready for a new tack. Her first structural change will unify all these teams into a single ocean space institute from 1 January.

“My concern has been that we must be able to think on a rather larger scale,” she explains. “We have to be primed not only to tackle the assignments our customers have already conceived, but also to contribute to the big ideas.”

Gjørv says that the Sintef departments working with the oil industry get good feedback on their deliveries. But she feels they can assist the industry even more by raising their dialogue with customers to a more strategic level.

Meeting the goal of zero emissions by 2100, for example, calls for a different view of technology development than is provided by thinking only 15-20 years ahead – the normal time span for company scenarios.

In Gjørv’s view, making sure that what must happen anyway eight decades from now occurs much earlier could position the sector for a new and groundbreaking business model.

“I’m a great believer in ploughing a deeper and more fact-based furrow,” she says. “I think that working on technology for a better society is the best way of managing our natural resources.”

 

Think bigger. Alexandra Bech Gjørv urges the industry to have bolder visions.

Think bigger.
Alexandra Bech Gjørv urges the industry to have bolder visions.

 

Alexandra Bech Gjørv. “I’m not a technologist. My role is to make matters explicable to ordinary people. Write that.”

Alexandra Bech Gjørv.
“I’m not a technologist. My role is to make matters explicable to ordinary people. Write that.”